Thursday, July 22, 2010

Do Romantic Comedies Ruin Real Relationships?

That's the implication of a new survey conducted recently in Australia. According to survey respondents, the "happily ever after" endings so common in the genre have created expectations that real relationships fail to meet - such as the belief that one can or should always know what one's partner is thinking, or that they should regularly receive flowers "just because".

Though it's not stated outright, I strongly suspect that most of the respondents to this survey were female, and the survey's findings square with the theory that the typical Hollywood romcom is essentially emotional pornography for women. Just as actual pornography supposedly leads men to nurture unrealistic expectations about their partners and their sex lives, romantic comedies, with their idealized, Hallmark card vision of romantic relationships, so the argument goes, do so for women. I'm not convinced that this is true - I'm skeptical of such sweeping claims, particularly when they're based on survey results that don't appear to have been gathered under particularly scientific conditions -but the thesis is thought-provoking.

Any real human relationship is going to be affected as much by the human flaws of the people engaged in it as by their positive feelings for each other, and those flaws, and the negative emotions they engender, will occasionally manifest themselves as conflict. This is particularly true once external stressors (e.g. having children) enter the picture. So eternally Happily Ever After is a clearly a myth. Similarly, knowing your partner's every thought is not possible nor, were it possible, would it be desirable. Most people I know seem to entertain thoughts which would be hurtful to their partners were they to share them - niggling personal criticisms, resentments, fantasies about other members of the opposite sex, and so on. This is only natural - if there is anyone alive who feels 100% positively about the person they're with, they'll change their mind about that eventually. But why would anyone want to know every time their partner thought something bad about them? Love and devotion are real things, but they exist side-by-side in any human psyche with other, less admirable emotions. We express the former and censor or judiciously edit the latter because it is generally healthier for us to do so. As for roses or candy all the time, if the gesture is repeated too frequently, doesn't it lose its meaning? It's good to do special things for one's significant other occasionally, but by definition what makes them special is the fact that they're only done occasionally - I suspect that a man who gave a woman roses every week would quickly find her tiring of them. Indeed, in the few instances in which I have seen this kind of behavior in real life, it created a real unease in the woman receiving the gifts because she came to feel awkward about being idealized and obligated to her admirer for trying so hard rather than flattered or appreciated.

So no, crappy middling romantic comedies are not a good basis on which to found one's expectations of love and romance. But it seems to me that most people I know - mature adults, at least - have figured that out, and have (if through painful experience) learned that real relationships sometimes require work, sacrifice, and a very unsexy attention to practical details as well as spontaneity and passion. The best romantic comedies find a way to acknowledge this truth, even if they also try to sell us a romantic fantasy. Lesser ones don't, but that is one of the major reasons they're considered lesser. Are there really people out there who take their cues from Maid In Manhattan or The Ugly Truth? If so, ugh. Romance is in more trouble than we could have guessed.

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